Contending Nationalisms in the Macedonian Controversy
Anastasia Karakasidou
Karakasidou is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Queen's College of the City University of New York and an HFG grantee. Her book Fields of Wheat, Hills of Blood is forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press.
1 | 2 | back to TOC

On Thursday, 14 September 1995, the New York Times and the international diplomatic community celebrated the conclusion of an agreement between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) that, it was widely hoped, would end a lingering dispute that has caused political polarization and ideological fanaticism among and between citizenry of the two countries. The controversial issue of the status of Macedonia, its history, and the relationship of contemporary Slavic-speakers in northern Greece to both the ancient and the modern Macedonian state has received some degree of attention in the international media, especially after violent civil conflict began to plague the former Yugoslavia. Yet there has been little public understanding or appreciation of the extent to which violence and aggression have played a role in the local-level political dominance of particular social groups in this region of the southern Balkans. More to the point, few have considered the potential consequences that may yet arise as acutely nationally conscious Greeks turn to increasingly violent forms of political expression in order to retain their sovereignty over this multi-ethnic region on the borders of Greece and the FYROM. Despite the apparent move towards a negotiated resolution of the Macedonian controversy at the level of international diplomacy, the danger of violent aggression remains clear and present at the local level. In fact, as I will explain below, in the course of researching national conflict over the Macedonian issue, I myself was obliged to confront the sometimes highly emotional response this controversy has fueled in Greece.

Under the diplomatic accord mentioned above, the FYROM agreed to change its flag and to modify provisions in its constitution pertaining to national brethren living in neighboring states. In return, Greece promised to lift its unilateral economic embargo of the FYRO, which was imposed in February 1994 and has contributed to growing social and economic difficulties in that country. The two states, however, have yet to reach an understanding over the name "Macedonia," and each continues to claim that it alone is the legitimate descendant of the ancient Macedonian state and therefore the sole rightful bearer of the glory of the ancient Macedonians. It is significant that issues of politically motivated violence, cultural or ethnic discrimination, or bias acts of aggression were not topics of discussion at the international negotiating table. Yet it is from these very issues, where expressions of ethnic plurality clash with the interests of national homogeny and state sovereignty, that the most immediate and most realistic potential exists for large-scale violence in the southern Balkans.

A few days after the agreement between Greece and the FYROM was signed, Greek police in Florina, a town near the northwestern border with the FYROM that has been a focus of my HFG research, forcibly removed an office sign from outside the local headquarters of an opposition political party associated with the (not officially recognized) Slavo-Macedonian ethnic group. They did so, ostensibly, because it contained Cyrillic (i.e., Slavic) lettering, which is often regarded in Greece as somehow threatening to national solidarity and which was once even outlawed during the Metaxas dictatorship of the 1930s. Local leaders of the political party faced criminal charges and the party's offices were set afire by zealous Greek nationalists.

Expressions of Slavic cultural or ethnic distinctiveness are still not tolerated in northwestern Greece, nor anywhere in Greece for that matter. Slavic-speakers in the Florina district who talk openly about such differences are still labeled by Greek nationals as traitors, specifically as "Skopians," a derogatory term used in reference to the FYROM and its inhabitants. Such individuals continue to be marginalized in the economic life of the region, many facing discrimination in the job market. At the same time, cross-border interaction and exchange among the region's Slavic speakers, including those living in Greece but with relatives in the FYROM, is discouraged. To this day, those who cross the Greek-FYROM border are reported to Greek security agencies. In the summer of 1994, a dance group from the FYROM was invited to attend and perform at a festival in the Florina Prefecture of Greece, but was prevented by Greek authorities from entering the country. During the incident, a Greek customs officer working at the border crossing drew his revolver and in heated anger threatened to shoot an individual attempting to videotape the confrontation. Patriotic Greek sentiment in this region has increased in magnitude since my first visits to the area several years ago and is currently adopting a dangerously aggressive rhetoric. It is now not uncommon to hear Greek nationals in the region speaking of Slavs in Greece by saying, "We will kill them all" or "We will wipe them out." There is a growing military presence in some villages as well.

1 | 2 | back to TOC

© 2011 || The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation